Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was castigated Tuesday evening for claiming in a video that if rival Benny Gantz becomes premier there will be “hundreds” killed, while using an image of a military graveyard as background.
Following widespread criticism, including from an organization that represents families of fallen soldiers, Netanyahu ordered the video broadcast on the Likud TV Facebook channel deleted and apologized for the “unfortunate error.” The Likud activist who filmed the clip, however, appeared to stand by it. Likud later announced that those responsible for the incident had been suspended.
In the video, broadcast on the party’s propaganda network, presenter Avishai Ivri — a journalist and right-wing pundit who recently joined the Likud campaign — echoed Netanyahu’s talking point that Gantz and his party were “dangerous leftists,” appearing in front of a picture of the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has waged a months-long campaign to portray Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s chief rival, as a candidate who would usher in a “weak” leftist government with the support of the Knesset’s Arab parties, seen by many on the right as disloyal to the Jewish state.
Ivri said that a “leftist leadership” would mean “more and more violence, more and more killed,” arguing that a government led by Gantz’s Blue and White would succumb to international pressure and withdraw from the West Bank, fueling Palestinian terrorism.
“The Israeli public has understood what a leftist government means and refuses to be guinea pigs in an experiment that will cost hundreds of lives,” he said. “So they are trying to conceal and fudge but the public isn’t stupid. Gantz is left-wing and left is dangerous.”
When Ivri said the last four words, the video’s background changed to show graves of soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces.
The move drew a slew of condemnation and accusations that Netanyahu was offending bereaved families and using their loved ones’ tragedies for political gains.
Eli Ben Shem, head of Yad Labanim, Israel’s main commemoration organization for fallen soldiers, said the video “hurts bereaved families.”
“Leave our children alone, leave IDF soldiers outside the political debate,” he added. “If Israel has one last sacred cow left, we should protect it, and not trample it so callously and cynically.”
Ben Shem later issued another, more strongly-languaged statement, according to the Ynet news website: “This is shocking, I don’t know who the psychopath is who thought of the idea to incorporate the fallen [soldiers] in politics. I received dozens of messages from families hurt by that video. People don’t understand that it opens wounds.”
Blue and White responded in a statement, saying that “IDF soldiers who fell in battle and their grieving families never imagined that the prime minister would use them for a political campaign video.
“Netanyahu, go and apologize to the families immediately, or this stain will accompany you all your life. Netanyahu, shame on you.”
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay said in a statement: “Too far, Bibi. Don’t bring your filth to the military cemeteries.”
Amid the growing chorus of criticism, statements from Netanyahu’s party said he had instructed the Likud campaign to take down the video and that “those responsible for the Likud TV broadcast this evening have been suspended until further notice.”
The party did not give the names of the suspended individuals.
The party called the incident “an unfortunate error,” and said Netanyahu has asked to take steps to ensure “this doesn’t recur.”
“As a bereaved brother who has been visiting his brother’s grave in [military cemetery] Mount Herzl for the last 43 years, I fully understand the families’ pain,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Later, speaking to reporters before he departed for a trip to Russia, Netanyahu said he had “seen the video and was shocked. I immediately called and asked for it to be taken down.”
However, Ivri himself passionately defended the video. Criticized on Twitter by journalist Haim Har-Zahav, he responded: “My friends are lying under those gravestones because of you, I would shut up if I were you.”
“Some of them died needlessly because of your fantasies,” he said in another tweet. “If I manage to save even one soul from falling victim to your hallucinations, everything is worth it for me.”
Netanyahu launched Likud TV earlier this month as a means of bypassing traditional media.
In a move reminiscent of Donald Trump’s online election campaign broadcasts, Likud TV airs each evening at 7 p.m. on Netanyahu’s official Facebook page and on a new Likud TV page from a studio within the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.